Archive for January 1st, 2019

by Sam Juliano

How many times does one hear that a student achieving straight A’s in English performed far better on his or her SATs on the mathematics portion of the test, even though the college hopeful professed difficulty with arithmetic dating back to the elementary school years?  Conversely it is hardly unusual for banner math students to discover their test scores in language topped their area of expertise, sometimes even handily.  There is  marked irony in the craftsmanship of an extraordinary 2018 picture book that brings to mind this scholastic contradiction, though in actuality it is a more symbolic scenario.  Internationally renowned children’s book author and illustrator Barbara McClintock confesses in the afterward of Nothing Stopped Sophie by Cheryl Bardoe that she “was an abysmal math student, and the thought of illustrating a book about a brilliant mathematician was ironic at best.”  Of course in view of the end product, McClintock who created the magnificent art for My Grandfather’s Coat by Jim Aylesworth and her own sublime Adele & Simon series in a prolific career, it is at least incongruous that the artist may well have produced her masterpiece, drawing for a subject she was at the very least less enamored for.  McClintock subsequently explains that she found some parallels between the intrepid lead character and herself and that she “approached the project with an allowance of marriage between the mathematical and the artistic.”  With the expectations fully consummated McClintock may never again look at numbers in quite the same way, but for her legions of fans she has demonstrated pictorial diversity within the reliable confines of her cozy indoor environs and architectural prowess.

The book’s dust jacket cover is one of the year’s most beautiful and surely one of the artist’s most accomplished.  Sophie Germain, a Parisian mathematician of renown walks on a city street, where colorful number values rise from the brick payments like the warriors in Jason and the Argonauts who rise from planted dragon teeth.  The numerical pastel cascade under the book’s title and telling subhead The Story of Unshakable Mathematician Sophie Germain is a tapestry of obsessiveness, but clearly about one who has made a mark in the world, even for those unaware of her importance.  The end papers, showcasing mathematical equations and algebraic formulas further set the stage for a story determination and resilience at a time when women as Bardoe asserts were scoffed at for thinking about “anything more serious than hair ribbons or what music to play on the pianoforte.”  It is well known that prominent women writers of this period, in fact women in general who tried to leave the box were scorned upon. Even Lord Byron’s daughter Ada Lovelace, as documented in a several picture books, the best of which is Fiona Robinson’s Ada’s Ideas: The Story of Ada Lovelace, the World’s First Computer Programmer had to set aside societal expectations to nurture the mathematical talent that in time rightly framed her as a forerunner in her field.  Of course it is well-known that the author of Frankenstein, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley had to escape from her famous poet husband’s shadow to receive due credit for her celebrated literary achievement, but the suppression of women in the vocational realm has numerous far more recent examples including the tumultuous law school ascendancy of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  In France at the turn of the twentieth century a fledgling young female writer Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette struggles and eventually succeeds in having her inner voice heard despite suffocating male chauvinism to become one of the world’s most acclaimed literary figures.  In any case on the matter of compulsion children’s book lovers may recall the splendid picture book on the eccentric Hungarian math genius Paul Erdos, also known as “the Magician of Budapest” by Deborah Heiligman and LeUyen Pham titled The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdos, where a similar propensity is chronicled, though without the obstacles faced by the indomitable Ms. Germain. (more…)

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